Strategy & Research
Left: A community map with measured dimensions. Right: Iso-metric illustrated version of the community based on reference photos. This was developed to make the map more engaging and fun. Righthand illustration by Boyeon Choi.
In the field of design and technology today, deeply understanding users in their local context is an essential part to the design process. A holistic understanding of users generates empathy and a specificity of experience that enables designers to create valuable solutions for markets, communities and individuals.
In our field work in Uganda's rural north and Kampala, its capital and largest city, we took the unique opportunity to conduct research, as designers, into informal technology usage from a more complex and discovery-based perspective. Jeff focused on informal electricity bypassing in an urban community in Kampala, and An looked at how youth transfer media files via Bluetooth in northern Uganda. These are the stories that emerged after a hybrid approach of design, ethnography and other research methods to understand the systems and structures in place and build relationships with individuals working and living in these contexts.
In an increasingly globalized world, local contexts matter more than ever before. Rich, deep ethnographic stories can communicate the complex conditions under which communities and individuals make decisions regarding technology use in their everyday lives. These stories in turn inform design decisions around technology development and practical use. As Jessica Weber and John Cheng recently argued in UX Magazine, "Ethnography reveals how digital and physical processes work together to help businesses address gaps and focus on the entire customer experience."
We present two examples of user stories from our research into informal systems, as well as the visual forms we developed to communicate it. It was essential to use visualization to engage the designers and researchers in a developed, U.S. context to translate the unique characteristics of the informal systems for those who couldn't experience them firsthand. Visualizing the conditions and the systematic influences at work through user-generated drawings, maps, videos and photographic documentation placed them in context, helping to reframe these stories in a manner that permitted audiences in the United States to make judgments based on local values and their emergent informal usage of technology.
llustrated map drawn by Richard the informal community electrician over night after an initial research interview.
The Informal Grid - Jeff K. Hall
I sit in Richard's (a pseudonym) home. His home is an electrical switching station for the community—an informal one. Inside is a bundle of thick wires that are directly connected to the power lines right outside on the street running atop the power poles. This bypass is called a direct connection because instead of the more common meter tampering, it attaches blatantly to the electrical wires —this tricks the meter box into not counting electrical use. The line hooked up to his home and splits into a knot of wiring that reaches out in three separate lines running into the rest of the community, from home to home along eaves and even underground. When I come by the next day, he greets me with a complex, layered visual map, a treasure trove of local community specific knowledge.
Prompted to communicate his system in a visual way, Richard had created a document t share his knowledge. This visualization would become the crux around which more meaningful research was generated in order to understand informal and illegal power grid tapping. It also mapped out the relationships that the people in the community have with informal, formal and illegal electrical grid access.
For example, discussion of the wiring led to the discovery that informal access to electricity isn't just direct theft—it restructures the economic mechanisms within the community. One example of this is who gets paid. Rather than paying UMEME, Uganda's electrical distribution company, the community pays Richard for unlimited electrical use. In a poor community, the price of electricity tariffs puts electricity out of their reach.
Since 2007, when UMEME was contracted as the single monopoly distributor of electricity, the cost and tariffs for electricity have continually increased. Informal access supports businesses, leisure and communal spaces. For Richard's community, 70 homes and businesses sees usage by 200 to 300 people depending on the day of the week. All of this positive economic activity, which depends on informal electricity, creates a contradiction of putting the community at risk of being thrown in jail, economic exploitation, and falling back into greater poverty.
The illustrated community map de-constructed into content layers.
Being on the ground and seeing this contradiction begged the question: how could this be simplified and expressed through the material I was working with, based on Richard's experience? His experience was expressed through the drawn map so the next step was to refine it further. First, it was essential to simplify it to protect the community by removing identifying features without losing information density. Next, to make it easier to analyze, information layers were isolated by converting the map in Illustrator. By separating the layers out, I established a narrative skeleton upon which I could fill in details with additional visuals or in other formats. This made a complex informal system more easily understandable and intuitive while simultaneously allowing me to place it in the appropriate, economic, social and local community context.
This would lead to another iteration working with an illustrator, which led to a more engaging and visually compelling representation. Visualizing the informal system allowed me to show the beneficial and positive community uses and social spaces that emerge from the practice of electrical power. In sum, utilizing a research method that enabled the visual material to emerge and developing it further through iteration allowed for my collaborator Richard's knowledge to become a common visual reference and story.
A speculation on how Bluetooth-enabled phones can serve as a conduit for communications and interactions with computer installations in the region. Designed to be narrated over, this map illustrates the different contexts in which mobile phones are used--and that they could potentially interface with more directly.
Bluetooth and Kung Fu Movies - An Xiao Mina
In most rural villages near Gulu and Lira in northern Uganda, there is limited access to electricity or running water. Internet access via 3G is ubiquitous—I was able to check email and Twitter everywhere I went—but the ability to afford the Internet is another story: The costs of access are generally outside the economic reach of most youth, both due to service costs and the going rate for an Internet-ready mobile phone. As in much of the developing world, texting is an important method of communication, while radio stations broadcast news, entertainment, talk shows and other programming at a lower cost for communities.
In a context like this, it seems unlikely that young people would know about the latest viral hits from YouTube in North America or kung fu movies from Asia. But upon arrival in one village, I was greeted with poses reminiscent of films from chop sockey cinema and a rendition of Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe." There is a well-documented history of video halls in northern Uganda and live veejyaing and translation for locals. As early as 2005, Katerina Marshfield and Michiel van Oosterhout noted the popularity of action films [PDF], including Asian martial arts movies. But some of the media the youth were referencing were quite recent.
I'd gone to northern Uganda with the explicit intent of observing youths' engagement with computers, but I felt driven to understand how they came to consume these forms of entertainment media, which are not available on the computers. After speaking with a few individuals, I learned that many have media-enabled phones that allow them to watch action movies, soap operas and music videos. But how did they obtain the files in the first place? And how did they charge their phones?
This map illustrates the modes of transportation and distances involved to reach the research site, along with a visual of the context in which Bluetooth transfer can occur. While only a small minority of youth had media-enabled phones, many more youth could watch and consume the media at the same time.
My research took me into a world of Bluetooth transfer and solar panels. As has been described in the terrific Sahel Sounds music series, Bluetooth-enabled phones allow for quick transfer of files as people move across regional borders. But these transfers are not too rapid—most of the time, they require at least a minute, meaning that a certain level of familiarity is required before a transfer occurs. Napster this is not. And youth will pay the equivalent of about 20 US cents (400 Ugandan shillings) to individual entrepreneurs who have purchased solar panels.
Since most Americans I know have rarely, if ever, made use of the Bluetooth function in their phones, describing this method of data transfer requires extensive storytelling and narrative. This mode of using technology is radically different from how most people in the United States engage with communications technology and media. However, a verbal story also cannot fully capture the vast distances that Ugandans travel to acquire solar cells and media files. By creating visuals for which I narrated a story, I was able to share it much more effectively outside of the context. From here, it became easier to discuss potential research and design directions that could emerge from such a system.
Conclusion: Visual Narratives and Verbal Narratives
We developed these series of visualizations to communicate both the function and context of these remarkable informal uses of technology that may initially seem quite foreign to Americans. But we realized that through these visualizations, they could become familiar and understandable in an American context. And from there, we even extrapolated how an NGO working with technology might tap into and understand these informal structures and systems to inform their future programmatic decisions.
But these visualizations alone are not enough, of course. Communicating user stories from a developing world context to designers and fellow researchers in an industrialized context requires a wide toolkit. The existing array of personas, user stories, photos and videos can be complemented with the designer's ability to create illustrations and diagrams that help us enter the world of the individuals we are designing for. What designer-researchers can uniquely contribute to this space is a deeper visualization of how these systems work, what they look like, and what the decision making process is like for users.
We are indebted to Art Center College of Design, UNICEF Uganda's Innovation Lab, Anthropology professor Elizabeth Chin, and Intel's Vibrant Data Project for supporting our research, which formed the basis for much of our thesis work and ongoing implementations in the field.